Little while ago we ran a feature on the South Downs Double, the infamous 200 mile endurance ride across the South Eastern England from Winchester to Eastbourne (and back). Shortly after we published the story, we were contacted by someone who had plotted and planned the next, illogical extension- The Triple.
Last summer Richard Sterry rode himself into the record books as the first solo cyclist to complete the South Downs Way Triple. That’s 300 miles of non-stop off-road riding. Not to mention the 11,000-odd metres of ascent. All in 37 hours and 4 minutes.
He pedalled day and night negotiating 288 gates, consuming 33 energy gels, 23 litres of drink, numerous energy bars, flapjacks, bananas, apples, cans of macaroni, spaghetti Bolognese and ravioli to sustain him as well as oatcakes and cups of tea.
Until five years ago 45 year old Sterry had never ridden beyond 30 miles on his mountain bike, so was closely monitored throughout by a support crew, including Dr Jerry Hill (a renowned sports doctor), physiotherapist Anne Dickins (an ultra endurance cyclist), former champion mountain bike racer Kate Potter (who trained him for the challenge) and a full mechanical support crew.
Richard admitted the demands he placed on himself were immense as he stepped up his training to 20 hours a week under the guidance of the AQR [A Quick Release] endurance coaching team, and provided reassurance to his wife Fiona he had the best medical support around him.Olympic Champion Heritage
But there must be something in the genes. His great grandmother Charlotte Cooper Sterry is a tennis legend who won the Wimbledon Ladies Singles title five times (1895, 1896, 1898, 1901 and 1908) and was the first woman to become an Olympic champion at the 1900 Games in Paris. She also won a number of mixed doubles titles, winning five successive years at Wimbedon and again in 1900.
She cycled to all her Wimbledon finals with her racket clipped to a bracket on the front of her bike, but lost her sense of hearing at the age of 26 and was deaf by the time she won her second title. Her grandmother Gwen had represented Great Britain in the Wightman Cup. Gwen’s husband Max Simmers won 28 consecutive rugby caps for Scotland (1926-1932).
Like his ancestors, Sterry is tall and slender in appearance but a deceptively powerful athlete who hated sport at school, and in mountain bike races has never finished higher than sixth. After clocking up a sub-24 ride of the South Downs Double in 2009, Sterry began looking for a new challenge- spurred on no doubt by the increasing numbers in the sub-24 hour Double Club.
Still, having knocked off the double three years previous was no guarantee of success in the Triple, especially considering his distinct lack of endurance cycling pedigree.
I’m glad I did not go by popular opinion as 98 per cent of my friends thought I was mad, but I knew the risks and without proper training and medical support throughout I could have put myself in a very dangerous place,” he revealed.
It’s a solo race. I had friends ride close by me for short periods during the 37 hours, but I had to set the pace, open the gates and be in front all the time. They were there for my safety, and especially on the third leg when someone was close by all the time. I was in contact with the support crew via the Endomondo App on my phone, so everyone could watch my progress. The South Downs can be a lonely place and the crew, as well as my family, needed to know my progress.
Never at any point did I think about the whole distance, just the next checkpoint. I know the route so well and in preparing for the double a few years ago I photographed every part of the route, every junction, every gate so I could remember where to go. That was invaluable training as in the rush to start early I forgot to load the route onto my GPS. When it was really foggy around Lewes I had to rely on memory.Visibility was down to 20 metres and at Lewes you are surrounded by open fields, the path is indistinguishable and I had to figure out my route. I knew buttercups did not grow on the path so if I kept away from them I knew I would be OK. My Exposure lights improved my visibility to 50m but I still had to think.
The Triple Challenge had been scheduled for the Jubilee weekend for three reasons: a Bank Holiday when most people would be enjoying street parties and not visiting the South Downs, there was a full moon and the nights were shorter reducing the amount of night time riding.
But the weather forecast a change in wind direction and that changed everything the Thursday before the planned start. “We decided to start on Friday morning instead, and from Eastbourne instead of Winchester,” Sterry explained.
All my preparation, spreadsheets, mind and body were set for Sunday. Now we went two days earlier and everything was suddenly about hitting the panic button, not everyone could now change their plans and I only got four hours sleep.
Sterry used to follow his own training modules but recognising he had considerable work to do on his core strength, stamina and self belief, joined forces with former bike-pro Kate Potter and her husband Ian. She got Sterry running – “in case I had to walk the bike anywhere” – and devised a training programme for the 300-mile challenge which meant 20 hours a week on the bike.
“The training was horrific,” recalled Sterry, who quickly fell in love with running but admitted he was “wrecked” in every department, often wondering what he must have been thinking off when the idea came to him while riding on the North Downs. “I just thought it was so easy, and that day thought I could ride forever. Then the SDW back-to-back three times in less than 36 hours came to me. It all seemed possible. Preparing my body was something else, but I really wanted to see what I could do,” he added.
For Richard, riding beyond the 24-hour mark without a break was something of a dip into unknown territory and why he surrounded himself with the best medical support. Dr Jerry Hill worked with him in the months building up to the challenge and was by his side throughout the ride. As a gesture to them for their support, Sterry provided the support crew with envelopes to open at every checkpoint with sweets, torches, quizzes, a float for petrol and other essentials.
“We agreed that if Jerry, Anne or Kate told me to stop I would. Any cyclist will tell you they are fine but Jerry gave me regular tests at checkpoints, Anne looked after my muscles and I had mental agility tests,” explained Sterry, who told his wife Fiona of the challenge just two weeks before.The Wife
“Her support was wonderful and of course she was worried for me but she turned up at the end to cheer me home and riding into Winchester with our son Dan was even more special.”
Richard paid tribute to Ben [Hunt-Davies, Olympic rower] for teaching him self-belief. “One of his phrases is: ‘today is going to be a good day, because I am going to make it a good day’. I stand by that. When I had a puncture in the first mile I was in a right tizz, but I told myself I was going to make this a good day. I didn’t get another puncture, just stayed focused and strong even though my i-pod packed up on me, and the second would not work. I rode past all the wildlife singing to myself.
“It’s a solo ride and the risks are huge,” he added. “I know riders will want to have a go at the triple challenge but as a word of caution – it is really dangerous. If I had not had the medical support I would not have done it. If I had gone ahead without that back-up, I could have put myself in a very dangerous position and done serious damage to myself. It is crucial anyone who attempts this has that support.
With just the one puncture on his Scott Scale 29er, Sterry admits he had moments of “torture” the worst 60 miles from the end when he felt “wobbly” on the bike, his body temperature dropped, he started shivering and feared it was all over. “My body was collapsing,” he admitted. The experts covered him with space blankets, provided hot tea and cakes, and monitored his blood sugar levels before allowing him back on the bike.
“If it had not been for them I may never have made it. I was determined to finish so when I saw my son Dan and he rode the last mile with me- that was really special. I completed the double in 22 hours 55 minutes and a sub 36 hours was the overall target. I missed it by a handful of minutes but I am so thrilled to have just done the triple.
“I have always wondered what it is in an elite athlete that makes them elite. I think I am learning.”
The South Downs Triple
Distance: 300 miles
Ascent: 11430 metres (37,500 feet)
Record Time: 37 hours 4 minutes
Estimated Finish Time: You’ll be lucky to get this far.
Riding across the rolling hills of southern England is not technically demanding, but you will need to be able to ride efficiently, saving energy on the downhill stretches and keep the momentum up on the uphills.
Needless to say the physical and mental fortitude to cycle alone off-road for 200 miles is essential. The challenge rating goes up the quicker you attempt the route in, of course. Most recreational riders attempt the single trip in a couple of days, so don’t underestimate the difficulty of the non-stop double. The non-stop Double is a realistic challenge for only the most prepared.
When to go:
The route is open all year, but outside of summer time you will be riding in the dark. The best time of year to go for a non-stop attempt is September when daylight hours are longest and the weather is not too hot.
What do I need?
A bike. Something that you will be happy to cover the distance on. Many of the record-breaking runs are attempted on 29er mountain bikes. Check out our guide to the bikes here.
How to Prepare:
Planning: Current South Downs Double record-holder Josh Ibbett shared a few of his key preparation tips for the South Downs.
Training: Our resident physio shares a few basics about taking on a mammoth cycling event.
South Downs Single: You could always start slightly shorter and take your time. The guys at VO Two events run an organised weekend across the South Downs Way in June.
South Downs Double: The slightly more famous (if equally as daft) ride across the Downs, and what started Richard Sterry on the route to the Triple.
National Trails: South Downs Way The official page of the South Downs Way with plenty of info for tackling the route on a mountain bike.
Richard Sterry: The blog of the man with the backside of iron, who took on the Triple.
Richard’s book will be called ‘Stay Away from the Buttercups‘ and advance orders can be made by e-mailing him .
Southdowns.net For info on the practicalities of taking on the Double, including gpx data and other route info from a previous record holder. A great resource for taking on the challenge in any of its forms.
joshibbett.com The site of the double record holder, with blogs and info about his life as an endurance mountain bike rider.
Written by Louise Poynton